Cubs

Jon Lester won't point fingers after Cubs can't finish off Cardinals

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Jon Lester won't point fingers after Cubs can't finish off Cardinals

ST. LOUIS — Time to grow up.

Jon Lester sent that message while meeting with reporters after his Cactus League debut in early March, when the Cubs had young talent, rising expectations and honestly no idea if this would actually work.

Lester had come of age with the Boston Red Sox and their World Series-or-else mentality. If you didn’t do your job, he said, they would simply find someone else. Next.

Six months later, this series showed how much these Cubs have matured and how far the organization has come. Even if the bullpen couldn’t finish off the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday afternoon at Busch Stadium, another meltdown leading to a 4-3 loss that exposed a potential major weakness for October.

Blame your teammates? Second-guess the manager? Start popping champagne bottles already? Lester wouldn’t have any of that.

“Have we gotten in the wild-card game yet?” Lester said. "That’s putting the cart before the horse. We got a long way to go. I know it looks good on paper right now to sit and talk about it. And I know everybody is excited about it.

“But we got to worry about playing Philly tomorrow. That’s what we got to worry about. And not worry about who’s pitching the wild-card game. We got to get there first."

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Just when it looked like the Cubs would put the exclamation point on a three-game sweep and make this division race more interesting, the best team in baseball made its comeback.

Cubs fans have seen this before, the bullpen unraveling in the eighth inning and the Cardinals suddenly turning a two-run deficit into a one-run lead.

Lester allowed one run on two hits in the first inning — and then put up zeroes across the next six. The $155 million lefty retired 20 of the final 21 batters he faced before manager Joe Maddon pulled the plug at 105 pitches.

“Right now, it’s glaring, because it’s here and now and fresh in our minds,” Lester said. “But we’ve closed out plenty of those games this year against good teams.

“The natural reaction for everybody is to go: ‘Oh, what happened?’ We’ve been there all year. We’ve been doing it all year. That’s why we’re in the position that we’re in. We won plenty of one-run games and two-run games this year.

“The bullpen has a hard job. They’re called upon every single day. They don’t know when they’re pitching.

“When they don’t succeed in those high-leverage situations, it’s real easy to stand back and point the finger at those guys. Those guys have done it all year for us.”

[MORE CUBS: Jon Lester endorses Jake Arrieta for wild-card game]

Lester said he wasn’t surprised by Maddon’s decision or lobbying to throw 120 pitches.

“I don’t make those decisions,” Lester said. “That’s Joe’s decision. It’s easy to go back and second-guess any decision that’s made when you lose. Put it this way: When he came down to the end of the dugout, I didn’t fight him.”

Maddon has pushed almost all the right buttons — and explains his moves with such detail and inspires so much confidence within his players — that it’s difficult to slam his decisions.

But this didn’t work out in the eighth inning, Pedro Strop giving up a walk and a hit, lefty Clayton Richard losing his matchup against Matt Carpenter (line-drive RBI single) and Stephen Piscotty blasting Fernando Rodney’s 91-mph fastball out toward the center-field wall for the go-ahead, two-run double.

Maddon didn’t think he took the ball away from Lester too soon: “If somebody were to get on base, you’re probably going to want to do something anyway, so give the guy a clean inning.

“You got 7, 8, 9 (in the order) coming up right there. It was a perfect spot for Stropy. And part of it was to reestablish his confidence, too.”

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Maddon laid out the logic behind Richard vs. Carpenter.

“The big thing there is that Carpenter has not hit homers against lefties,” Maddon said. “He hits them against righties, so you have a better chance of just a single, which did occur. But Richard came out, threw strikes and a good hitter got him up the middle. No big deal.”

What about having unofficial closer Hector Rondon get five outs?

“You can’t just burn people out in an attempt to win a game today,” Maddon said. “Everybody’s got to do their job for us to be successful. Moving down the road, you can’t alter these opportunities for these guys. Everybody was in the right spot today. It didn’t play.”

The Cubs now trail the Cardinals by 7 1/2 games in the rugged National League Central. To set the mood for the next stop on this three-city road trip, Maddon blasted Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” from his office inside the visiting clubhouse.

The Cubs have done such a good job this season with finding the right balance between relaxed and intense, focused and oblivious, youth and inexperience.

Lester remembered another lesson from his time in Boston, the epic collapse in 2011 that led to seismic changes at Fenway Park.

“I’ve been on the other side of it,” Lester said. “I’ve been up and then not make the playoffs and we were talking about who’s starting Game 1. We got a long way to go.”

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."